Archive for June, 2008

It’s been nearly two months since my last bookconscious post. I haven’t stopped reading. Other parts of my life have been so busy that I haven’t taken time to reflect on my reading here, but I plan to remedy that and get back to monthly bookconscious musings. When life is hectic, I enjoy the closure I get from reading essays, and I’ve enjoyed some terrific collections lately . The bookconscious family has been reading some fun things, too, so I’ll begin with them.

My son recently finished Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I admit to nudging him in that direction, after I found it on the library sale shelf (paperback, only $ .50), and also after reading aloud a sermon by Barbara Talcott on discerning “Big T” versus “little t” truths from literature, in which she mentioned the book among other great stories that challenge the reader to grapple with Truth versus truth.

He was somewhat suspicious of reading a book that I clearly felt would be good for him, but admitted cheerfully that it was a great story, and that he enjoyed it very much. He did ask why some people have to ruin good books by making other people discuss what they are about, instead of just enjoying them. Hint taken.

He’s moved on to a nonfiction book, also a library sale find: Ends of the Earth: Voyages to Antarctica, by Peter Matthiesen. I’m thrilled to report that this even cheaper purchase ($.25) from a nearby town’s annual library book sale has my skeptical teenager fascinated, and that the other day, said son told me he’d really like to go to Antarctica one day.

Speaking of places across the seas, my daughter recently sampled Mermaid Tales from Around the World, retold by Mary Pope Osborne. Osborne has published several excellent collections of stories — Favorite Norse Myths and Tales from the Odyssey are others my children have enjoyed. My daughter recently took an art class with a mermaid theme, and the artist who led the classes read aloud excerpts from this book. The stories are from many places (some “stories from around the world” collections turn out to be mostly from Europe and North America) and both Osborne and Troy Howell, the illustrator, give information about the sources they consulted. As a reference geek, I love this.

My daughter has also been reading the Kit series from American Girl. She’s read many of their historical books, as well as contemporary stories published as part of the marketing of their “girl of the year” dolls. Yes, I am aware it’s all a ploy to part us from our money. But she enjoys them, and the historical books are the kind of thing I liked as a child. And I admit an ulterior motive in bringing the Kit titles home from the library: I know there is a movie coming out, and my kids are not big movie fans. We are back to living where there is very little air conditioning (and so far, none in our house). When the next heat wave hits, I am hoping to entice them into a nice cool movie theater!

While we’re on the topic of movie adaptations, we also recently read aloud Blue Balliet’s The Wright Three and are currently reading The Calder Game. Balliet’s books, including Chasing Vermeer (her first book, already being made into a movie), are all about a trio of friends, two boys and a girl, in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Each book’s plot centers on a famous piece of art. Katherine asked me to find The Wright Three at the library and got interested in Frank Lloyd Wright, so I got a copy of Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids, which is a biography with activities to bring some of Wright’s ideas to life. We’ve been having fun with that and plan to visit Wright’s Zimmerman House in Manchester, which is part of the Currier Museum of Art.

One cool thing about reading The Calder Game is that we saw a Calder sculpture in May when we visited the Currier with Grandpa and Jan. Jan told the kids that it really was meant to be displayed in such a way that it moved, and she set it in motion (carefully, and after we all looked around for sharp-eyed guards). In the book, Balliet describes a Calder exhibit which incorporates “wind” with strategically placed fans, so the museum visitors can see the sculptures in action. I’d love to visit such an exhibit!

I didn’t really get into Chasing Vermeer, and I think there are parts of all three books are a bit forced, but I am enjoying The Calder Game and I love the way Balliet draws readers into her stories and the artists’ work. In each case, we’ve felt compelled to book down and look up the art — a picture of the Vermeer painting A Lady Writing in Chasing Vermeer, Wright’s Robie House in The Wright Three, and Calder’s sculptures — because we wanted to see what the characters were seeing.

The illustrator of all of the books, Brett Helquist, works coded clues into his pictures. One of the main characters, Calder, carries pentominoes everywhere, and as a result, my daughter made a flat set to play with after Chasing Vermeer and I recently bought a wooden set of 3-D pentominoes like the ones Calder uses to make a model of the Robie house in The Wright Three. Readers of bookconscious know I am a big fan of making connections, and Balliet’s books connect readers with art, math, history, humanity — ideas, human nature, the way people interact.

Plus, I’ve yet to meet a person who doesn’t love a good mystery every once in awhile. My grandmother, who is about to turn 95, always recommends a mystery as a calming antidote to the world’s upsets. My daughter asked me to stop reading tonight with only a couple of chapters left. I suspect she doesn’t want it to end.

Another read aloud we’re all enjoying is Rainbows, Snowflakes, and Quarks: Physics and the World Around Us by Hans Christian Van Baeyer. Yes, another library book sale find, from a few years ago. My son has been learning about physics for about a year, ever since he first started watching F1 racing and wanted to know more about the forces involved in race cars hurtling around a course (for car related physics, he likes The Isaac Newton School of Physics, by Barry Parker).

I pulled Rainbows, Snowflakes, and Quarks from the shelf before a long ride to a soccer field clear across NH (only about an hour away) and in no time all four of us were intrigued. The first chapter was about Galileo’s proofs of the path of a trajectory, and Steve reports that the illustrations were the clearest he’s ever seen on this topic. He’s a former Marine Corps artillery officer and gunnery instructor, and in the artillery, lives depend on accurately plotted paths of trajectories.

Today we were reading about gravity, and Van Baeyer described the many ways humans are “victorious” over it, starting with lifting our heads as babies, standing, walking, even getting out of bed in the morning. It may sound like an odd read aloud, but the chapters could easily stand alone as essays about a particular facet of physics, and together, they form a clear, concise, and beautifully written overview of the physics at work in the world all around, for us to notice and understand.

Essay, you ask? Is she finally going to get around to telling us about the essays she’s been reading? Yes, finally. First, I should acknowledge the man I quote in this blog entry’s title: Milton J. Rosenberg, host of a radio program called Extension 720. I found the reference to a transcript of his 1999 program, “Roundtable: The History of the Essay,” in the back of Anne Fadiman’s highly enjoyable collection, At Large and At Small.

As the program begins, Rosenberg asks his guests about the origins of the word “essay.” He then adds his own take, tracing the word from the French “essayer,” which means to try or attempt, to the Latin exagare, which he tells his panel and listeners, “means to weigh, to sift and winnow.” I immediately nodded (like many bibliophiles, I interact with my reading materials all the time, occasionally alarming those around me when I forget myself and vocalize my outburst). Rosenberg hit on precisely what I love about essays: I cannot get enough of watching a writer weigh, sift, and winnow. It’s what I try to do as a writer, too, although this sprawling blog entry may lead you to believe otherwise.

This month I’ve read Fadiman’s excellent Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, which I plan to buy and wait in line for her to sign when she reads next month at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. It’s fortunate the rest of my family is usually in bed by the time I settle down with a book, because I chuckled, nodded, and called out “yes!” like a Baptist amening the pastor throughout this slim volume. Ex Libris is a delicious collection of essays on book-love and reading, many of which appeared first in Fadiman’s column “The Common Reader” in the Library of Congress’s magazine, Civilization, in the 1990’s.

When it’s 99 degrees and you live in a place where there is, (did I mention? ) NO AIR CONDITIONING, it is hard to concentrate on a novel, or on a nonfiction book on a subject unfamiliar to the reader, or anything else requiring serious mental effort. So when the temperature rose a couple of weeks ago, I trolled my “to read” list and checked out Fadiman’s essays from the library , thinking they would be easy for my heat-addled brain to digest. They are so delightful that I concentrated happily and forgot the heat.

Ex Libris is about reading, but it’s also about life. Fadiman’s essays twine her reading life with her childhood, her marriage, motherhood, caring for an ailing parent, and other universal experiences told from her unique experience. She is both reflective and informative; you sense her intelligence, yet she never takes an authoritative tone, despite being very well read and able to write absolutely lovely prose. Her light touch makes you grateful she’s sharing what she’s learned.

Fadiman is also quite funny. Whether she is writing about melding her books with her husband’s, the urge to proofread, gender bias in language, or the different styles of book love, her erudite observations and literary references are interspersed with personal anecdotes that are either tender or amusing or both. By the end of the book, you’ll want to go used book store trolling with Fadiman. She makes it easy to imagine doing so by including a few pages of “Recommended Reading” at the end of the book.

Having enjoyed Ex Libris so much, I immediately read At Large and At Small, which is a book devoted to the familiar essay. Most of these pieces appeared in The American Scholar during Fadiman’s tenure as editor. This collection is wider ranging than Ex Libris. For example, Fadiman devotes one essay to Charles Lamb, master of the familiar essay, and his family and friends, who included Wordsworth and Coleridge, and a later chapter is an armchair tour of her reading of a two volume biography of Colerdige. Yet Fadiman writes just as thoughtfully about ice cream. She cares about her subjects and her essays are thorough and observant, but she’s humble, telling readers in the notes that she is “an enthusiastic amatuer, not a scholar,” before listing copious sources.

Some of the essays in At Large and At Small have a more personal subject, like “Moving,” “A Piece of Cotton,” and “Under Water.” Even though these are, respectively, about her family’s move, Fadiman’s thoughts on the flag after 9-11, and her experience at a wilderness program, Fadiman never dwells on herself. Instead she illuminates the world around her with her own light, and offers the reader a well-lit path towards further understanding of the topic at hand. It isn’t just her perceptive, clear, graceful prose that appeals, it’s the sense you have that this is a person who is deeply curious and finds delving into a subject to satisfy her curiosity a pleasurable and valuable use of time.

Fadiman is a life learner, and she’s made a life and a living through her pursuit of knowledge about that which intrigues her. Her curiosity spoke to my own, and I am now the owner of a 1947 edition of The Essays of Elia, With the Last Essays by Charles Lamb. I also dug out my college copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry (3rd edition) and re-read Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” which Fadiman does at the end of her essay “Coleridge the Runaway.” I know I have many future hours of discovery to look forward to, thanks to her enthusiastic suggestions, and I can’t wait to attend her reading.

In the last several months I’ve read two other essay collections I’d recommend enthusiastically: The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders, and Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York, by Adam Gopnik. Both men write regularly for magazines, Saunders for GQ, Harper’s and The New Yorker and Gopnik for The New Yorker, and these books are collections of their work that mostly appeared in periodicals first. Gopnik’s book is a nice sequel to Paris to the Moon, one of my favorite expatriate books and also a tender book about fatherhood, and Saunders’ is his first nonfiction book after a handful of books of satirical fiction.

Saunders’ point of view, no matter the subject, is delightful — he pokes fun at himself in a Bill Bryson-ish way, and he is quick to point out his own conflicted views on some of the subjects he covers. The piece on visiting border vigilantes is a good example. He goes there thinking they are obnoxious nuts and he, an east coast liberal, will have nothing to say to them and vice versa. But he leaves having seen their humanity and come to an understanding of why they feel the need to patrol the border. He helps the reader see beyond the obvious, and his adventures are hilarious.

You don’t necessarily want to be Saunders, though you admire both his humanity and his intelligent writing. He’s living a little too much on the edge for me, and I’m glad he’s written about it so I don’t have to go there. Despite the humor and adventure, Saunders also writes about his love for his family, and those bits are a sweet, but never sappy, departure from the wackiness.

On the other hand, like Fadiman, Gopnik seems to live a charmed life that I can’t help envying a bit. Through the Children’s Gate is as much a tribute to New York as a collection of essays about family life and the experience of raising children pre and post 9-11. Just as Paris to the Moon made me wish to be an expatriate writer in Paris, Through the Children’s Gate makes New York life sound charming. Gopnik is funny in much the same way Fadiman is — a gentle, intellectual humor that makes you laugh but also awes you a little, in a “gee, I wish I’d thought of looking at it that way” sense.

I was thinking to myself on Saturday morning, as I made pancakes before another soccer game, that I’d have trouble finding something to read next that I’d enjoy as much as recent books I’d finished. Earlier in May I read Three Cups of Tea, which I also enjoyed very much, not necessarily from a literary standpoint (I found the writing style somewhat awkward) but because the story is so compelling. Lately I haven’t enjoyed the novels I’ve picked up (Inheritance of Loss, which seemed to be only partially developed, Suite Francaise, which I re-read for a book club and didn’t care for as much this time, and The Echo Maker, which I don’t think I’ll even finish).

Scott Simon was on the radio. As I pondered my reading options, I heard him interview an Iranian American author, Firoozeh Dumas. They discussed the fact that her books are unique because she’s funny, and it’s rare that someone writes about the Middle East with a sense of humor. As bookconscious regulars know, I recently read some other Iranian memoirs. I’ve read bitter criticism and earnest defense of Iran, as well as a visitor’s perspective. I can’t wait to read Dumas’ first book, Funny In Farsi:A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian In America, which I had checked out by the end of the day, and I am going to reserve her newer book, Laughing Without An Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, At Home and Abroad.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read.


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